Condemn, Mourn, Confess, and Reform
John 8:31-36 (NRSV)
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
The task for all Christ-followers this morning, regardless of the location of their churches or the denominational label, is to condemn, mourn, confess, and reform.
Yesterday the world learned the horrifying news that a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, PA and murdered eleven human beings while they were worshiping the Lord. The attack is believed to be the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history. I, as a representative of Cross of Grace, condemn this violence; I also condemn the sin of anti-semitism and white nationalism that appears to have motivated the man whom has been charged with these hate crimes.
This news leaves us feeling sad, embarrassed, ashamed, and frightened. As a word of pastoral care, pay attention to your emotions in the wake of these deplorable acts of violence. Sit with them. Let them make you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, and hurt. This is the process of mourning. The primary way for us to honor the victims of this senseless tragedy is by mourning the loss of their lives.
Let us never become numb to the devastating acts of violence in our world. When we close our eyes, ears, hearts, and hands to the pain around us we are not creating a new peaceful reality; instead, we are contributing to the spread of injustice. Sins of omission – that is, sins of not paying attention, not acting, not choosing to be an active peacemaker – are just as offensive to God and just as destructive to our world as are acts of violence.
We are sinners. Sin, rightly understood, is the soul turned in on itself. Our thoughts, emotions, and actions often fail to correspond to the reality that the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, that God is present here and now, that there is a divine ordering of the world that lifts up the lowly and the humble of heart. The reality is that God’s gifts of love, grace, peace, hope, and love absolutely permeate this world; but our gaze and attention is so inwardly turned that we miss all the opportunities to dwell in those perfect gifts.
Instead of living as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, we put ourselves in charge of our own domains. We prioritize our own needs and desires over our neighbors. We let fear keep us from loving. We let fear of others drive us to think of others as less than human and unworthy of love, respect, and protection. God sets a feast before us and we bar the doors after we get inside so that none of those other people can get in and ruin our delightful evening.
The antidote to sin is repentance. Repentance, rightly understood, is changing one’s mind. The changing of a mind is a laborious and lengthy process that is largely out of our control. Fortunately, we worship the God who lavishes us with gifts. One particular gift is the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who works on our head and our heart day and night…softening it, shaping it, making it ready to receive the truth of our forgiveness and ready to receive the invitation to live according to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Repentance – changing one’s mind – bears fruit and shows up in the way we live our daily lives. This is what is known as discipleship; but for our purposes today we can call it reformation.
Today we, like our Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburg yesterday, gather to worship the Lord. We gather to worship the Lord on a day we set aside each year to commemorate our denomination’s roots in the Great Reformation of the 16th century. We gather to worship the Lord bearing the inescapable reality that we are a church descended and evolved from the teachings of a theologian whose anti-semitic sentiments are well-documented.
Our church denomination, the ELCA, has committed itself to reforming this haunting aspect of our past. In 1994 the ELCA researched, wrote, and published a statement called the “Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community.” Included in the text were these words:
“We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us.”
Reformation is an ongoing task; a daily turning toward God. The 1994 ELCA statement did not solve the problem of anti-semitism nor did it erase it from our collective past. Rather, it points us to a truth that guides our everyday actions and attitudes.
Our task today, along with all who profess to worship and follow Christ, are to condemn, mourn, confess, and reform. Reformation comes at the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Reformation comes by doing the hard work of analyzing our heart and mind. Reformation comes by striving to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Reformation comes only by the grace of God who sets us free from the slavery of sin and sets us on the path of righteousness and eternal union with the Lord.